Thursday, April 27, 2017

Op-Ed: “Get Out” of your own asses, liberal white America

What’s the scariest moment of Jordan Peele’s indie thriller flick “Get Out?”

Is it the opening scene, when a young black man is trailed by a strange little sports car as he walks a perfectly manicured suburb one night, only to have the car’s masked driver attack him and drag him into the car?

Or is it when the fate of black protagonist Chris seems all but sealed, with his sinister white girlfriend Rose denying him the car keys (and his escape) as her family closes in on him?

If you ask me, it’s the moment you walk out of the theater and realize that delusional white liberals pose as much of a threat to achieving racial harmony as the skinheads creeping out of their caves, drawn out into the daylight by the hypnotic call to “Make America Great Again.”

In “Get Out,” it’s Chris who finds himself hypnotized – part one of his girlfriend’s family’s twisted process of entrapping black men and women and selling them off as physical hosts for the mental consciousness of rich white buyers.

But before that happens, the family and their friends chitchat with Chris over hors d’oeuvres and tea across the sprawling lawn of a WASPy woodland estate. Every conversation is punctuated by a micro-aggression towards Chris. The phenomenon is subtle at first. In succession, it becomes painfully obvious. Therein Jordan Peele executes his master plan.

The repetition may seem cinematic, contrived, perhaps even unrealistic to the perpetrators – ‘progressive’ white people. To the victims, it’s far from fiction.

Well-meaning white liberals’ failure to acknowledge and admit to this type of racism presents the greatest obstacle to a more equal society.

At least Blackface Halloween costumes, the use of the n-word, and worrisome white glances at black men are conspicuous. It’s racism you can readily identify and try to root out.

The subtleties go unnoticed, or worse, denied. And “when those interactions add up," says Peele, "I’m having a different experience than that person is having. Oh, wow, so, yes, I am being viewed for my skin as the starting point of the interaction. I’m not — I don’t have the privilege of existing at this party in the same way that this white guy has.”

Well-meaning white people can try ‘fixing’ centuries of institutional racism with policy and planning: bussing low-income students into nicer neighborhood schools, offering low-income housing in nicer parts of town, maintaining affirmative action in hiring and admission processes.

At the end of the day, it won’t mean anything until they press pause on their pursuit of the ‘other,’ open up, and own up to their own deep-rooted, well-disguised racist reality.

“I think part of why the way we talk about racism is broken is because we think of racism as this unacceptable evil thing that I couldn’t possibly have within myself,” says Peele.

Hate to break it to you, liberal white America: not even you could escape racism’s clutch, not with your years of watching COPS re-runs and listening to gangsta rap on Top 40 radio. Do yourselves and all the black people you care about a favor: "Get Out" of your own asses, and accept defeat. Admitting is the first step.

Monday, April 24, 2017

140 characters of Twitter vs. 45 words of the First Amendment

Yesterday, New York Times' columnist Jim Rutenberg published an article that I believe is must read material for anyone concerned with Trump's relationship with the media.

Part book preview and part expert legal analysis, Rutenberg leans on 'free speech jurisprudence titan' Floyd Abrams to explain how Trump's tweets could come back to haunt him if and when he pursues legal action against journalists or news media organizations.

As a journalism student, the following is what stood out to me most:
  • The reminder that free speech takes a lot of forms; the courts affirmed that "money talks" in the Citizens United case.
  • That technology has complicated who qualifies as the press. The Justice Department is considering whether to bring charges against Wikileaks, a pursuit Obama dropped after deciding the circumstances would implicate journalists across the country. While I understand this train of thought, it concerns me to see Wikileaks linked so closely to the press. For now, the lack of federal shield laws means the definition of a journalist is increasingly determined by the states based on the privileges they award and whom they award them to.
  • The reminder (or revelation) that Obama was not the most first amendment-friendly president. Consider that the witch hunt against Edward Snowden is just one of nine instances where Obama has used the Espionage Act to try and punish whistleblowers...three times more attempts than all other previous administrations combined. As James Risen writes, "if Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama."
  • Abrams' thinking that "Gawker would have won if it had had a chance to go higher" is problematic. The cliff notes of the case: Hulk Hogan sued Gawker for invasion of privacy for publishing a sex tape 'starring' Hogan and his friend's wife. Gawker lost the case and went broke in the process. Rutenberg mildly refers to the truth of the matter, but Abrams' prediction fails to acknowledge that the lawsuit was really just a proxy battle for billionaire Peter Thiel, who was upset at Gawker publicly outing him as gay. In response, Thiel indefinitely funneled money to Hogan's legal team until Gawker was financially tapped out. In studying the case, I it's just as reasonable to assume Gawker would've lost even with the financial means to appeal.
  • Abrams specifying the Espionage Act and the serving of subpoenas to journalists as his two primary concerns. It's easy enough for the average person to understand why Trump's constant labeling of the news media as fake is troubling. But Abrams reminds us of the way in which the free press could truly suffer - imprisonment.
  • The reason why Trump's tweets are a double-edged sword. "It could provide great grist for legal arguments that the investigations are less about prosecuting damaging leaks than they are about punishing journalists," says Rutenberg. "‘Enemy of the people’ would be on page one" of any defense, Mr. Abrams said, referring to Mr. Trump’s post describing reporters as such." I don't like to theorize about what could happen, but I'll take the little bit of comfort where I can get it - especially when it comes from one of the major power players in first amendment law.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Patriots' visit tacks another W in Trump's column

A little over two months since their thrilling win over the Atlanta Falcons, the New England Patriots finally took their Super Bowl victory visit to the White House this week.

Of all the professional sports franchises in the United States, no team has had a more public relationship with President Trump than the Pats. In September, reporters spotted a red Make America Great Again cap sitting in Tom Brady's locker. At a November campaign stop in Manchester, NH, Trump read a letter penned by head coach Bill Belichick aloud to the crowd.
You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media and have come out beautifully. You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter. Your leadership is amazing. I have always had tremendous respect for you, but the toughness and perseverance you have displayed over the past year is remarkable. Hopefully tomorrow’s election results will give the opportunity to Make America Great Again. Best wishes for great results tomorrow, Bill Belichick.  
Trump's close ties to the faces of the franchise aside, the visit was destined for intrigue if only because the Patriots are the first championship team to visit the White House since Trump took office.  But long before the visit -- in some cases just a day or so after the conclusion of the game -- running back LeGarrette Blount, defensive end Chris Long, defensive tackle Alan Branch, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, tight end Martellus Bennett and safety Devin McCourty all announced that they would not be participating in the White House visit, many pretty blatantly citing politics as the reason why.

And so sports nuts and political persons alike all sat patiently waiting to see who else would abandon tradition. The press was no exception.

In the same spirit of the aerial photos of inauguration crowds, the New York Times quickly tweeted out a side-by-side image comparing this week's Patriots visit to the White House to their visit after winning the Super Bowl in 2015.

The difference in the crowd size between the two photos was abundantly clear, bound to rack up thousands of retweets and favorites. The difference was so clear, in fact, that the Patriots organization itself addressed the tweet head-on, in an incredibly unprecedented move:

The above tweet received many thousands of more retweets and double the number of likes as the NYTSports tweet. They followed it up with their own side-by-side image, which more accurately presented this year's attendance in comparison to the previous visit.

When Trump and his cronies call the New York Times biased and untruthful, it's easy enough to brush their words aside as merely politically motivated criticism. But when rightfully called out by a legitimate apolitical entity, a professional sports organization as powerful as the New England Patriots, there is little to be brushed aside.

At best, the incident reveals that the Times will carelessly abandon accuracy in pursuit of clicks much like the fake news outlets it's tried so hard to distance itself from. At worst, it reveals the Times' true bias against the president, a scenario he gleefully played up on Twitter:
The Times is lucky that this incident was basically contained to the Twitter sports fan universe. Even with a relatively limited audience, it's a pretty devastating blow to their credibility and a pretty big victory for the Trump administration.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Why I learned more in the athletic department than the classroom

‘White girl.’ It’s a term - an expression, if you will - that’s existed in pop culture over the last several decades. Today, the term evokes skinny vanilla lattes and athleisure attire, Instagram filters and hair straighteners. But one expression it’s never associated with, and could be arguably presented as a foil to, is ‘black guy.’ This premise is in part what’s made Jordan Peele’s recent release “Get Out” such a hit in theaters.
Yet over the last two years, this white girl has been constantly associating herself with black guys as an employee in the athletic department for one of the most storied programs in college sports. And nothing - not the years of grade school education on the civil rights movement, or the hours of media coverage of the deaths of black men at the hands of the police - has been a more practical, powerful lesson in race relations.
There is so much that I simply do not believe I would ever know if not for my job in athletics.
A month ago, I wrote about empathy’s existence and application as a means to solve issues on a macro scale. Science and psychology aside, I think we can all agree that getting to know someone else is an easy way to encourage empathy.
It’s the same reason many Trump critics are having so much trouble hearing out Trump supporters. We don’t know these people. We aren’t hearing their stories. We don’t know their struggles. While we still might disagree with their solution to the problem (electing Trump), if we got to know them we might find that we have more in common with them than we think.
If not for my job in the athletic department, I don’t trust that I would have ever been brought into contact and given the opportunity to forge meaningful relationships with black people.
I look back on the last 22 years of my life, trying to distinguish where else those connections might have formed. While my black classmates and I may have shared a schoolyard, we rarely shared a classroom. I had a couple of black teachers. I had a couple of black teammates and black coaches across my 17-year soccer career. I can’t think of a single black family living in my neighborhood. And while they attend my university, black and African-American students make up just 5.6% of the student body.
If not for my job in the athletic department, I don’t know if or when I would’ve realized why it’s a problem that me and all the other upper middle class white and Hispanic classmates with whom I shared a social circle frequently referred to each other by the n-word without any hesitation just because we heard it in all our favorite songs; why it’s problematic that we actively avoided going to the cafeteria during lunchtime because that’s where all the (predominately black) kids who were bussed in ate lunch; or why it’s wrong that we called any black person who shared many of our interests or occupied our same spaces an Oreo.
This retrospective is why “Get Out” resonated so deeply with me, because I know that my friends and I were exactly the audience he was targeting. As’s Bob Chipman explains,

Peele’s film is using a well-worn horror-movie narrative (specifically, the narrative of The Stepford Wives – a paranoid 1970s chiller in which a women discovers that the men of her suspiciously-perfect small town are replacing their “difficult” feminist wives with obedient, submissive 1950s-style robot duplicates) in order to needle a very specific subset of White racism: “Nice” Liberals who are insistent of their non-racism because they admire an abstract ideal of Blackness while not actually engaging or regularly encountering any actual Black people.
In a little over a month, I’ll graduate from college and leave behind this job. I'm not sure whether I'm quite ready to leave behind sunny walks across campus, football game days, and weekends that start on Thursday night. There is one thing I'm sure of, though: if graduation means joining a whitewashed workplace, I'm definitely in no rush to Get Out.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Calling Costa

Friday, March 24th marked the anticlimactic end of Republicans' attempt to 'replace and replace' the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. The bill was pulled from the House floor before voting took place with an understanding that President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan had not secured the support they needed to pass it.

Not long afterwards, Washington Post political reporter Robert Costa received a phone call. "I thought it was a reader with a complaint since it was a blocked number." Instead, it was Trump phoning him from the Oval Office.

"His voice was even, his tone muted," wrote Costa. "He did not bury the lead. 'Hello, Bob,' Trump began. 'So, we just pulled it.'"

According to Costa, Trump launched right into an explanation of his decision to pull the bill before a single question was asked. Based on how the article was written, Trump continued on for sometime uninterrupted before Costa was able to ask his first question. Again, based on Costa's writing, the phone conversation then shifted to a back-and-forth, an interview.

"Are you really willing to wait to reengage on health care until the Democrats come and ask for your help, why not whip some more votes this weekend and come back next week to the House with a revised piece of legislation, what’s next on health care, if anything, policy-wise," Costa asked, among other questions.

It was not the nature of the conversation that interested me when I came across Costa's article, aptly titled, "‘Hello, Bob’: President Trump called my cellphone to say that the health-care bill was dead." It was the fact that the conversation even took place.

It highlights the current struggle the media is faced with - navigating the terrain between business and ethics. The Washington Post has managed to stay out of Trump's line of fire when it comes to his labeling of fake, dishonest media. And how are they rewarded? With direct calls from the President just moments after the first true milestone of his presidency.

Or so I thought, until I discovered the Post wasn't the lone recipient of a call from Trump. The "failing" New York Times received one too.

The situation further complicates one's understanding of the White House's relationship with the media. Why the personal phone calls, especially to a sworn enemy outlet? Was Trump not confident that his message would be adequately communicated by Sean Spicer in a press conference? Trump isn't someone who particularly enjoys taking questions, but a one-on-one phone call is one of the most intimate settings to have a conversation with a reporter. Did he have any sort of reservations about what Costa or the Times might ask?

Or is it only when he has something to hide, or in the midst of a challenge or controversy that he spits fire at the press? The most telling statement of all came at the end of the Times' article: “I’m not disappointed,” he told the New York Times. “If I were, I wouldn’t be calling you.”

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Major Statement: On Empathy's Existence and Application

These particularly divisive times have left many Americans searching feebly for a solution to the growing divide and attempting to understand why the right feels one way and the left feels another.

But as disagreement and disgust grow, the simple request of putting ourselves in each others' shoes seems almost too much to ask. When we do give it a try, many find themselves in major discomfort trying to adopt the opposing mindset. We can't bear to bring ourselves to try to rationalize how the other is feeling.

I am of the belief that empathy (or a lack thereof) is at the root of nearly all of our nation's problems. I've become fixated on the idea, thoroughly convinced that invoking empathy on a macroscale is the solution our country needs.

Is empathy instinctive? Or does it need to be taught -- "treat others the way you would like to be treated," as the golden rule goes? Can it even be applied in the way I think it should be?

To evaluate this theory of mine, I had to start with the origins and basis of empathy. According to The New Yorker's Paul Bloom, the word itself is only a century old, with its roots in the German word 'einf├╝hlung,' meaning 'feeling into.' But as early as 1759, thinkers such as Adam Smith were acknowledging its significance. “Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers,” he wrote.  To generate action, he observed, there existed a need to “place ourselves in his situation...and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.”

In his book, "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society," Frans de Waal argues that 
"human empathy has the backing of a long evolutionary history." He (and scientists) turned to apes as basis for this claim, as we often do for a look into our past. de Wall points to research that chimpanzees will yawn when presented with a computer animation of another chimp yawning, the same, seemingly uncontrollable phenomenon that humans face. He says this mirroring of behavior is a very basic, primal form of empathy.

In 2009, a group of researchers at Columbia University set out to determine the neural basis of empathetic accuracy. 

One of the two regions they found to be most active in making accurate judgements about others emotional states is the human mirror neuron system. Initially thought of only as the control center for programming motor movements like scratching our head, the study showed the system also allows us to vicariously interpret the motor movements of others, to think about what those movements might feel like. The second region of activity was the medial prefrontal cortex, which is critical for forming conceptual thoughts and ideas about meaning of someone's behavior.

In short - we are hardwired to empathize with others. So what is the effect or power of empathy? This is where C. D. Baston's "empathy-altruism" hypothesis comes in.

Baston presents substantial research to show that empathy is the primary motivation for altruistic behavior. He defines altruism as "a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s

"As long as a person in need is helped, why worry about the nature of the underlying motivation?" he writes. "If one is only interested in getting help for this person in this situation, the nature of the motivation may not matter. If, however, one is interested in knowing more generally when and where help can be expected, and how effective it is likely to be—perhaps with an eye to creating a more caring society—then understanding the underlying motivation is crucial."

It all seems so simple, then. Empathy is not only inherent, but it is also what moves one individual to help another. No matter how difficult a task it may be, we just need to keep channeling empathy and our problems will eventually be resolved. Right?

Not so fast.

In "The Baby in the Well," Bloom makes a pretty convincing argument against empathy. "Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate," he says. "We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it."

He even addresses the exact area that sparked my inquiry into the possibilities of empathy:
Typically, political disputes involve a disagreement over whom we should empathize with. Liberals argue for gun control, for example, by focussing on the victims of gun violence; conservatives point to the unarmed victims of crime, defenseless against the savagery of others. Liberals in favor of tightening federally enforced safety regulations invoke the employee struggling with work-related injuries; their conservative counterparts talk about the small businessman bankrupted by onerous requirements. So don’t suppose that if your ideological opponents could only ramp up their empathy they would think just like you.
He boils down the government's "failure to enact prudent long-term policies" to the politics of empathy. "Our concern for specific individuals today means neglecting crises that will harm countless people in the future."

On the other side of the argument is Matt Waldman, founding director of the Center for Empathy in International Affairs. Waldman believes major foreign policy errors could be avoided if empathy was introduced to the process.

Waldman's approach to empathy is less about the precarious path of assisting victims that Bloom traverses (though it includes that as well), and more about pragmatism. "Empathy will produce better diplomatic outcomes and counteract dangerous modern political propensities towards over-simplification, polarization and stereotyping," he says. "Empathizing deepens our understanding of allies, adversaries, population groups or other actors....understanding adversaries is central to smart strategy-making, negotiation and leadership. Awareness of others’ mindsets, emotions and perceptions provides us with a critical advantage, given that those factors shape the way others behave."

Where does that leave us then? This light assessment of both sides of the argument leads me to conclude that empathy has an important role in conflict resolution on a macro scale, but we have to do more than just act on our empathic instinct. We need to think about how best to channel those impulses to produce the greatest reward. And - as both Bloom and Waldman suggest - we need more research into the applications of empathy.

Bloom's final thoughts resonated with me, and so I leave you with them as my final thoughts as well:
If a planet of billions is to survive, however, we’ll need to take into consideration the welfare of people not yet harmed—and, even more, of people not yet born. They have no names, faces, or stories to grip our conscience or stir our fellow-feeling. Their prospects call, rather, for deliberation and calculation. Our hearts will always go out to the baby in the well; it’s a measure of our humanity. But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.

"The neural bases of empathic accuracy"
by Jamil Zaki, Jochen Weber, Niall Bolger, and Kevin Ochsner

"The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society"
by Frans de Waal

"Empathy-Induced Altruistic Motivation"
by C. Daniel Batson

Center for Empathy in International Affairs

"The Baby in the Well"
by Paul Bloom

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Timeline of Trump vs. The Press - Week of February 19th

The strained relationship between Trump and the news media reached a new low this week. What happened, and what does it all mean? I attempt to provide a complete look at what happened alongside context and comparison.

Sunday, February 19th
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus appears on CBS' Face The Nation. Host John Dickerson opens the interview by asking Priebus whether the American people should take seriously Trump's assertion that the press is the enemy of the nation. Priebus says yes - because of the existence of bogus stories. "The enemy?," Dickerson asks again. Priebus says information from unnamed sources should not be reported by the media in the name of accuracy. Dickerson responds by saying that the White House has historically been frustrated by such things, but has refrained from calling the press the enemy. Priebus asks that the media report on some of Trump's accomplishments since taking office. And so on and so forth. Dickerson never quite gets his question answered.

Monday, February 20th
Protestors across the country take to the streets to 'celebrate' Not My President's Day. Maintaining a free press emerges as (another) one of many priorities Trump protestors espouse.

The same day, Trump tweets the following in response to his vague mention of an attack in Sweden at at a rally he hosted in Melbourne, FL on Saturday.
Plenty happened on Tuesday, February 21st and Wednesday, February 22nd, but little of it involved the press.

Thursday, February 23rd
Top officials from Trump's administration appear at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington D.C. In a joint interview, Priebus and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon repeatedly call the media the "opposition party" and base their lack of credibility in their inability to predict Trump's election.

Friday, February 24th
Trump follows in Bannon's footsteps, talking about the "dishonest" media's "false narratives" while addressing a large crowd at CPAC:

As described by CNN correspondent Sara Murray, the daily White House press briefing is downgraded to a gaggle and reporters are asked to put their names on a list to attend. When she later tries to enter, she - and reporters from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Politico, Buzzfeed, and much of the foreign press - are blocked by a White House staffer who says they aren't on the list. She communicates that a select group of outlets - NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS, Breitbart, The Washington Times, One America News Network - are allowed into the gaggle. The Associated Press and TIME boycott attending in response.

Inside the West Wing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer is questioned about the move.
 Q    One more question just about the idea that it seems as though you're playing favorites with media outlets by excluding some from this conversation.

MR. SPICER:  You're my favorite.  (Laughter.)

Q    No, that's not what I'm asking.  But do you have a response to that, though, given that that is a concern to some that want to see press have access to you, all out?

MR. SPICER:  No, I think that -- right -- I think that we have shown an abundance of accessibility.  We've brought more reporters into this process.  And the idea that every time that every single person can't get their question answered or fit in a room that we're excluding people -- we've actually gone above and beyond with making ourselves, our team and our briefing room, more accessible than probably any prior administration.  So I think you can take that to the bank.  When you look at --

Q    But why not those other outlets today?

MR. SPICER:  Because, Cecilia, there's 3,000 people that are credentialed to come in here.

Q    But there are six outlets that want to be in here right now.  The New York Times --

MR. SPICER:  No, there's not.  Actually, that is false.  To say that there are six -- maybe six that reached out to you, but that is not --

Q    Well, but --

MR. SPICER:  No, no, hold on --

Q    -- listed in the White House Correspondents' Association's response to this.

MR. SPICER:  I understand that.  There are way more than six that wanted to come in.  We started with the pool and then we expanded it.  So I get it.  But why -- I can ask -- there are plenty that want to come in at all times for every event.  We do what we can to be accessible.  And if there's a problem with that, I understand it.  But we do what we can to accommodate the press.  I think we've gone above and beyond when it comes to accessibility and openness and getting folks to -- our officials, our team.  And so, respectfully, I disagree with the premise of the question.
A similar situation occurred under Obama's administration in 2009, when FOX News was initially barred from interviewing Kenneth Feinberg. FOX News' then-Senior Vice President Michael Clemente said that when White House press pool chairman Chris Isham informed the other pool members - including FOX News - that the network would not be a part of the media availability “they unanimously said, instantly, no, that’s not gonna fly. Either Fox is in or none of us is doing it.”

Later that day, Trump tweets:
Saturday, February 25th
Trump announces via Twitter - what else - that he will not attend the White House Correspondents Dinner in late April.
Major left wing influencers and media members alike quickly spread the news, some incorrectly citing that Richard Nixon was the last President to outright skip the dinner in an attempt to draw a comparison to nearly-impeached former President. Jimmy Carter was in fact the last to outright skip - in 1980 and 1978 (Ronald Reagan skipped in 1981 as well, but was recovering from surviving an assassination attempt).

NPR succinctly described the event and the President's role in attending: "The annual dinner, sometimes referred to — affectionately and derisively — in Washington as "Nerd Prom," honors journalism with awards and scholarships. The president is a major a draw to help in those efforts. What began in 1921 as a simple awards dinner evolved into a highly glamorized affair that attracted Hollywood stars."

It's a break from tradition, but is it truly consequential? And as White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "if a Girl Scout egged your house, would you buy cookies from her? I think this is a pretty similar scenario."